Hydrology, not landscaping or landmarks, is focus of Frank Gehry's L.A. River plan


Frank Gehry and the Los Angeles River: It's a combination that makes zero sense (if you're looking strictly at Gehry's resume) and follows a natural logic (if you think about the interest the architect's work has long shown in L.A.'s linear infrastructure and its overlooked, harder-to-love corners). And it might give Mayor Eric Garcetti a way to confront the growing conventional wisdom that he is sometimes paralyzed by caution, gun-shy about big-ticket or controversial efforts to remake the city.

The 86-year-old Gehry has been working for about a year on a wide-ranging new plan for the river. His client is the L.A. River Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit group founded by the city in 2009 to coordinate river policy.

Though Gehry's firm has taken on a few master plans, including an ill-fated attempt to redesign Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn for the developer Bruce Ratner, the office is best known for virtuoso stand-alone buildings including Walt Disney Concert Hall and the new Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

Yet Gehry insists that he isn't interested in the river as the site for new landmarks. He says he told the Revitalization Corp. board members who first visited his office last year that he would take on the job only if he could look at the river primarily in terms of hydrology.

"They came to see me and said they were heading up a committee for Mayor Garcetti and said we have this wonderful river, 51 miles, and that if we could brand it, give it visual coherence, it could become something special," the architect said in a conversation at the offices of Gehry Partners.

"I said, 'Oh, you want me to be Olmsted,'" a reference to Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the designers of Central Park. "I told them I'm not a landscape guy. I said I would only do it on the condition that they approached it as a water-reclamation project, to deal with all the water issues first."

Since the river was wrapped in concrete by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, beginning before World War II, it has operated as an infrastructural machine with one central task: to keep storm-water runoff from flooding Los Angeles by whisking it south toward Long Beach and out to sea. On most days the relative trickle in the concrete channel is treated wastewater from plants upriver.

Gehry thinks it could be turned into an entirely different kind of machine, one that could store and even treat storm water. Capturing more storm water could also allow the city and region to save some of the money they now spend importing water from around the West, helping finance new park space along or even spanning the river. "I think we're wasting a lot of water at a time when we need it," he said.

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